View From the Cab

Idaho Farming at 6,000 feet

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Farming at higher elevations often means a late start on spring seeding for Dan Lakey, Soda Springs, Idaho. He's participating in DTN's View From the Cab series this year. (Photo courtesy of Dan Lakey)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Dan Lakey's favorite phrase to disprove is "that'll never work here." From the conservation practices he's adopted to the crops being grown, the southeastern Idaho farmer has made it his business to buck convention.

Since leaving the business world to come back to the home farm in 2009, he's made soil science a focus. No-till and crop diversity aren't necessarily new practices in some parts of the world, but they are in this farming region. These days he leans heavily on any practice that will help conserve water and put more carbon into the soil.

"Somehow, whatever the farming practice is, it usually (but not always) works," said Lakey, who hails from Soda Springs. "It's all about being a little better today than I was yesterday. I love a good challenge."

Many farmers would consider growing no fewer than a dozen crops at 6,000 feet elevation to be challenging enough. Snowflakes were still falling as he was attempting to drill spring wheat this week. Winter can come as early as late September in this region where crops are grown with a scant average of 15 inches of annual rainfall.

Readers will be able to follow along to learn more about this unique farming area and Lakey Farms this season through DTN's View From the Cab feature. This year celebrates 20 years of exploring farming through a diary-like series that appears weekly through the growing season.

Also participating in 2024 will be Quint Pottinger, New Haven, Kentucky. Read more about his farming enterprises here:…

Next week both farmers will drill down on planting progress. Read on to learn more about Lakey's operation.


Dan Lakey will tell you he's the third-generation farmer. Truth is, he's not sure how far back his farming roots extend. The family immigrated from Scotland to North Carolina in the mid-1800s. The Homestead Act of 1862 urged his great-grandfather westward to this southeastern corner of Idaho where land was free for the taking if you farmed it.

He likes to begin his farming story with his paternal grandfather, who left the farm as a teenager to labor in Oregon as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program. Eventually, Ezra Lakey returned to Soda Springs in 1945 and began to carve out an independent farming business. In those days, half of the acres were in small grains and the other half were summer fallow, with the occasional plow down nitrogen pea crop.

One of Ezra's five children was Dan's father, Dwight. When Ezra began turning over operations to Dwight and his brother, Jerry, in the late 1980s the sheep and cattle had gone. The mainstays of wheat and barley coupled with summer fallow began to change, too.

"Moving away from the moldboard plow to conservation tillage allowed the farm to move to annual cropping, which was a huge shift for this area," Dan said.

He grew up working on the farm but didn't have a passion for it. "I'd get home from school and there was mostly grunt work to do like rock picking. When I was in high school, Dad pulled me aside in the shop one day and told me that farming is hard work and long hours for too little pay. He encouraged me to go to college, get a degree and a job where I could earn a living," he recalled. At the time, his grandfather, father, uncle, and a brother, David, who is 16 years older, were all farming together.

Meanwhile, Dan heeded his father's guidance. He headed to Idaho State University, married Marie in 2004, and landed a job in sales while he was a college senior and followed graduation by working in sales for a couple of Fortune 500 companies.

"Then, we had our first child, and everything seemed to change," he said. "I was already asking myself how and where I wanted to raise this new family when Dad called." His grandfather was gone, and his uncle wanted to retire. It left his brother and father managing nearly 10,000 acres. They needed help.

Dwight and David were already deploying many conservation measures, such as water and sediment basins and contour farming. They were both on board when Dan returned to the farm and started pushing for no-till and more crop diversification.

Today's labels such as sustainable and regenerative don't sit well with him, though. "As we've gotten away from full tillage, we needed things that would break up the hard pan, for example.

"I started eating, sleeping, drinking soil health. I've tried all kinds of things. I've traveled all over and talked to anyone that would talk about how to make this work in this specific little corner of Idaho," Dan said.

"The problem with labeling something is not every practice works everywhere. Cover crops haven't worked as well as we hoped on this farm, but we've been able to do a lot with crop diversity and managing rotations," he added. Crop diversity also spreads production risks and is opening opportunities for specialty contracts.

The farm currently grows winter and spring wheat in just about every class (soft, hard, red and white). Malt barley, forage barley, feed barley, brown and yellow mustard, oriental mustard, spring and winter canola, flax, yellow and green peas, and triticale are all in the crop lineup.


Legacy took on new meaning as an unexpected blow came in 2021 when Dwight passed away suddenly.

"It's funny how things work out. Dad telling me there wasn't room at the farm wasn't easy to hear, but I'm so grateful he did that. Getting away from the farm and being exposed to other businesses really makes me look at farming differently," he said. "Now, I can't imagine doing anything else and I'm glad I came back in time to work with him."

Working with his brother, David, has been another benefit of returning home. "I tell David sometimes that he's too easygoing. He's always for anything I want to try and I'm not sure he shouldn't question me harder at times about some of these ideas," he said.

About a quarter of the Lakey Farms acres are owned. Another quarter are leased from family and the remainder are leased from landowners. Dan said the leases vary widely from cash rent to a variety of different share agreements. He estimates average county cash rent rates fall around $33 per acre. Rents occasionally sneak a smidgen past $50 per acre on more productive parcels.

They shoot for 40 bpa continuous crop spring wheat and 50 bpa barley on dryland acres. The farm does have some irrigated acres where wheat yields can push past 100 bpa. Dryland winter wheat typically yields from 50 bpa and can haul in 80 bpa if it follows fallow.

These fields sit at the base of the Caribou, Bear Lake and Blackfoot Mountain ranges. Some of the farm extends to the northernmost end of the Wasatch Range. Field sizes can range from five acres to 1,200 acres. A typical size field is about 250 acres, he noted.

Lakey Farms is spread out nearly 50 miles from one farm to the other in a Y-pattern from the homeplace. It makes for a lot of road time in the tractor, he admitted.

"We're in a very volcanically active region with what we call lava reefs and lava necks-cracks in the ground that lava would flow through. It's very fertile soil because of the volcanic ash, but some of these fields will be a half-mile long and only several hundred yards wide. They are shaped kind of like fingers that run off the mountain," he explained. Topsoil is only 18 inches deep before hitting rocky conditions.


Despite the blizzard this week, this year is considered an early start for the farm. The first spring wheat started going into the ground April 14 and so far, about 1,000 acres have been seeded, as well as 350 acres of canola and 250 acres of beardless spring barley being grown for seed production.

Of the 1,500 acres of hard red winter wheat that was planted last fall, 850 acres winter killed this year. The good news is it was being grown under contract for a specialty miller that will allow a similar protein level to be substituted through spring wheat without penalty.

"We deal with winter kill every year. Many times, it is caused by snow mold [diseases caused by fungi attacking grain under snow cover]. We applied fungicide and didn't have as much snow this year. So, this year is a bit of a mystery," he said. Saturated ground that goes through freeze-thaw cycles in the early spring can also break the crown on winter wheat, he added.

While drought is often considered the limiting factor in this region, he lists frost as the biggest agronomic challenge. "Being in the high desert we often get a hard frost the second week of June and then, it will turn off really hot. I think temperatures we get during grain fill probably contribute more to yield loss than drought," Dan said.

A timely rain or two can make or break yields too. He also believes snowpack through the winter is also important for retaining moisture. "That's why we started using stripper headers [at harvest] that can leave the stubble tall to catch that snow," he explained.

Machinery is, he admitted, something he enjoys. "Over the past decade, we have started transitioning to newer equipment--instead of older models that need repairing all winter. Our windows to get crops in and out are so short that we had to start thinking about dependability of getting repairs and parts," he said.

Readers following this series can look forward to seeing that equipment working in front of some breathtaking backdrops. "We may have some production challenges to work around," Dan said. "But the views are remarkable."

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Pamela Smith

Pamela Smith
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